Originally created 02/19/99

Jury finds men innocent in fatal shooting



After 19 months in the Richmond County jail with murder and aggravated assault charges hanging over his head, Corey Jackson is a free man.

Mr. Jackson, 27, was released Thursday afternoon after a jury of 11 women and one man acquitted him and co-defendant Darrell J. Jenkins, 22, of charges related to the July 4, 1997, slaying of Sherod Cunningham, 20.

Mr. Jenkins, however, will return to Hancock State Prison to finish serving a five-year sentence for a November 1997 cocaine conviction.

But Mr. Jackson's acquittal Thursday doesn't mean police will look elsewhere for Mr. Cunningham's killer. That case is closed, and investigators have no other suspects, said sheriff's Chief Deputy Ronald Strength.

"Without a doubt, there is nobody else," Chief Deputy Strength said.

Authorities had accused the two men of shooting Mr. Cunningham and two others with an assault rifle in a wild daylight car chase through south Augusta.

"We believed we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt the case against the two suspects we had, but after considering the evidence the jury chose to vote not guilty," said Assistant District Attorney Mike Carlson.

During the three-day trial, prosecutors worked to build a case against the two men by connecting them to a 1969 Chevrolet Caprice that police determined was involved in the deadly drive-by shooting.

Authorities believe Mr. Jackson and Mr. Jenkins were associated with drug traffickers working from Eighth Avenue and Grand Boulevard in Augusta's inner city, according to the notes of Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Lee Woods.

Police theorized that the Fourth of July shooting was part of a turf war and that the killers had mistaken the minivan for a similar vehicle involved in drug deliveries to a rival group on Old Savannah Road.

Mr. Cunningham and his friends became victims because they looked like the wrong people, Mr. Carlson said.

Authorities had an abundance of circumstantial evidence connecting the crime to the car and the car to Mr. Jackson.

They had a license tag number, eyewitnesses and shell casings that pointed to the Caprice as the right car. They had a man who sold Mr. Jackson the car, a man who painted the car and a man who allowed Mr. Jackson to park the car at his home, where police found it after the slaying.

Prosecutors had another victim, Robert Hampton, who testified Mr. Jackson was the man in the same 1969 Caprice who had shot him down on a basketball court off Old Savannah Road five days before Mr. Cunningham's death.

But it was what prosecutors didn't have that may have raised doubts in jurors' minds.

They didn't have a murder weapon or anyone who could say the two men were in the Caprice when the shooting occurred.

"We had a soft ID on Jenkins at best," Assistant District Attorney Willie Saunders said of testimony by a victim, Sylvester Fountain.

Mr. Fountain told police he didn't get a good look at the shooter's face but thought he still recognized him as a man that he knew, "Little Darrell" Jenkins, because of his "funny-shaped head."

But in the end, defense attorneys Jack Boone and Tony Axam rested their case without calling a single witness to refute the state's claims.

Mr. Jackson has a record of felony arrests on drug and weapons charges in Florida and Georgia dating back to 1988. In February 1993, he pleaded guilty in Florida to manslaughter charges in the July 1990 robbery and slaying of Karl Roynell Finlay and was sentenced to six years in prison.

S.B. Crawford can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 111, or scraw@augustachronicle.com.